University Library Receives IMLS National Leadership Grant to Preserve Email

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has awarded a $248,326 National Leadership – Libraries Grant to the Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The project’s goal is simple: to make it easier for archives, businesses, journalists, and individuals from all walks of life to preserve email.

The two-year “Email Archiving in PDF: From Initial Specification to Community of Practice” project will establish a Liaison Working Group in collaboration with the non-profit PDF Association ( The group will create a detailed technical specification for a PDF technology-based approach to the long-term preservation of email (EA-PDF). The project will also develop open-source software demonstrating the ability to create EA-PDF files. Developing this specification within the PDF Association facilitates exposure to and input from industry partners who may wish to support EA-PDF in their products.

The IMLS investment in this Illinois-led project will drive a potent initiative to help government agencies, libraries, archives, museums, and businesses preserve and provide access to email archives. Email documents how businesses, organizations, and citizens interact and make decisions. As the New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo has noted, “[Email] preserves time, location and state of mind, the what-when-where-and-who of every story we might want to dig up.”* News stories routinely cite email as a source of information, but there are few easily-used tools that preserve the entirety of a message or allow for its contents to be judged authentic.

“Email is the modern equivalent to the handwritten letters and typescript memos that fill archives and special collections libraries around the world. This project will make it easier for archives worldwide to preserve email,” said Associate Dean for Digital Strategies and Professor in the University Library Chris Prom, who will direct the project. “That’s important not only in its own right, but because email gives citizens and scholars the ability to fully plumb the depths of this wonderful, confusing thing we call history—our understanding and interpretation of past events.” 

PDF is a preferred target format for emails in part because many archives already use the PDF format to preserve other forms of written communication.  The EA-PDF specification will complement and extend existing approaches to email archiving and help to preserve these emails by building on existing universally-accepted technology. By providing an entirely vendor-neutral platform for preserving email that meets archival requirements and utilizes accepted technology, the project is well-positioned to find rapid adoption throughout the library, academic, and preservationist communities. 

The proposed work will leverage PDF as an accepted archival document technology with its reliable rendering and appearance, while also utilizing existing PDF features for preserving email’s native structures for other uses. Given the project’s early and continuous exposure to industry, as well as the interest already demonstrated, it is reasonable to anticipate broad engagement in the development of the specification, setting the table for widespread adoption,” said Duff Johnson, CEO of the PDF Association. “The PDF Association is delighted to continue its partnership with the University Library and engage in this further collaboration to realize a fully interoperable EA-PDF specification.” 

The EA-PDF project runs through August 2023 and extends Illinois’ record of leadership in this area, seen through prior grant projects. The project is also supporting an EA-PDF Community Fellow, Eden Irwin. She is a graduate student in the University of Illinois School of information, and the IMLS support and grant are providing her with the opportunity to complement and extend her formal education with practical experience in the digital preservation community.

The EA-PDF project will release the specifications and software in 2022 and 2023. As with many Library projects, the University will make these materials available under creative commons on open source licenses, so that they are freely available for application, reuse, and extension.

More information about the project can be found at

Read the PDF Association’s own announcement.


*Manjoo, Farhad. “What We Lose When the World Moves On From Email.” The New York Times, July 12, 2017, sec. Technology.